Chasing Fool’s Gold in Texas

Wish they all could have been like this…

Please note: a much shorter version of this article is in my column in Cross Country Magazine, issue 213.

I’ve had my eye on Texas for an awfully long time. Very few people have given it a shot since Will Gadd broke the open distance record there, flying 423 km on the summer solstice in 2002. Why? Because it’s brutal! On record days you’re taking off in absurdly strong winds. Cloudbase feels like it’s an arm’s length above your head early in the morning when you need to get in the air to go big, when thermals are weak and broken. Then it’s a crap shoot for the first 75 km. As soon as you get blown downwind of the airstrip you’re in no man’s land. One wrong decision or a little bad luck and you’re on the deck. But getting on the deck safely in a sea of thick mesquite, cactus, and monster windmills in strong wind is a long ways from a gimme. If you’re lucky enough to stick it in on a dirt road (which rarely run parallel with the wind) have fun walking in 100+ degree heat (most of our days the heat index was well over 110 degrees) to a road where your retrieve can get to you as all non-county roads are locked up tight behind big Texas-sized gates (watch out for rattle snakes, wild boar, and scorpions!). As an added bonus- you’re flying right along the Mexican border for the first 150 miles. People down in this part of Texas are very wary of disheveled looking people wandering around with backpacks (ie paragliders). Every piece of land as far as the eye can see is privately owned. Texans carry guns. Big guns. We heard “I was just about to shoot you” and “next time one of you lands out here you’re going to get shot” about as many times as I heard “this place sucks” by one of our team members, which was every day of our three week encampment. In other words- you aren’t going to southern Texas in the middle of summer to have a flying vacation. You don’t go to Texas to have fun. You go there for a chance at glory.

Here’s a few of the signs we ran across that give you a little idea of the flavor of things down here:

Brazil has held the world distance record since 2007, when Marcelo Prieto, Rafael Saladini and Frank Brown flew 461 km from Quixada. In 2015 Donizete Lemos, Frank Brown, and Marcelo Prieto flew 513 km from Tacima, a site 400 km further east of Quixada and much closer to the ocean, which provides for early cloud support, and really crazy launches in extremely high wind. Then in 2016 Donizete and new team members Samuel Nascimento and Rafael Saladini smashed the record flying 564km, also from the tricky Tacima launch (their encampment lasted 39 days, of which they flew 3). Ciclos 2 documents these Brazilians’ incredible dedication to team flying and world-record chasing and is a must-watch. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film, probably the best cross country film ever made.

Then last year another Brazilian team (Marcelo Prieto, Rafael Saladini, and Rafael de Moraes Barros) went ever further, this time starting by towing in front of the ridge of Tacima to make it safer and flew a remarkable 588km. Could Texas hold even more potential? The going thinking, even among the Brazilians is yes. I’ve flown the Sertau from Tacima and now I’ve flown Texas. Here’s how I rank them:

Cody Mittanck and Gavin McClurg launch

  1. Consistency: Brazil by far. From Tacima in ten days I had two reasonable flights and a lot of scary launches. Still better than Texas, and we were there three weeks. The last few years a whole slew of world-class pilots have been towing from Caico, a town 200km inland from Tacima and are regularly banging out 500km+ flights across the Sertao.
  2. Food:  Texas. I’d heard the little town of Hebbronville had one Subway and not much else. But if you like meat, Texas has some wicked BBQ and Tacima is grim from a culinary standpoint.
  3. Heat: Brazil. Texas is stinking hot. AND Humid. It’s brutal.
  4. Risk/ Danger: Brazil. Tacima does have a pretty full-on launch, but once you’re off the ground it’s a walk in the park compared to Texas. And if you tow from Caico or other sites, the Sertao is much, much friendlier.
  5. Aesthetic flying: Brazil. The Sertau isn’t just flat forever. It’s broken up by cool terrain, strange lakes, odd outcroppings and is really quite stunning. Although Texas did grow on me. The first 250km is pretty much just flat mesquite with a bit of circle farming (which makes it very easy to get disoriented if there’s not a lot of wind pushing you obviously one direction), but then you hit the hill country which is…hilly and green and dicey if you’re low in a lot of wind, and once on the north of hill country landings get easier, which is nice late in the day.
  6. Potential: Going only on what Dustin Martin and Jonny Durand did in 2012, I have to say Texas. But it hasn’t been that dry since and being there on the right day is going to require a hell of a lot of luck and persistence.
  7. Retrieve: Texas absolutely. When you go deep in Brazil getting home is almost as wild an adventure as the flight, and takes about as long. Texas has paved roads and they go mostly the right direction.

 

Cody Mittanck on glide early on a blue day. All the green stuff is mesquite (ie landable, but extremely painful, and the death of your wing). All the white towers are windmills (death). All the roads are gated off (possible death). All the light green field are a goat head hell (wish you were dead).

Since Dustin Martin flew 475 miles (Jonny Durand landed 3 miles short at 472) on his hang glider in 2012, the only paragliding encampment I know of was an Ozone team pilot crew with some of the best cross country pilots in the world  headed up by Nick Greece in 2014. They had marginal weather (it was a wet year), but Luc Armant was able to beat Will Gadd’s long-standing US record flying 463 km. It was well short of a world record, but it gave us a glimpse of the potential. Several months before our trip was scheduled I called Nick Greece to get some beta.

“Nick”, I said, “what do I need to know about Texas?”

“Don’t go. That’s what you need to know.”

With that encouragement, we began planning.

We began studying the water tables (the drought index) and weather patterns. Watched the GEOS radar for months trying to figure out how the weather models were aligning with the actual conditions so we could narrow down which models worked best. I contacted the Texas weather gurus Davis Straub and Gary Osoba to get their thoughts on how things were lining up. We needed multiple winches, tow-techs, and retrieve drivers. We needed a place to stay. Going off of Will Gadd’s record, which was set on the summer solstice (June 21), we finally decided to head down on June 16th (a 30 hour drive from Sun Valley!) so we’d have a couple of days to get organized and be ready for the long days. Turns out dryness and the right wind is a LOT more important than sun hours in Texas as you only lose a couple minutes a week after the solstice so this was something we weighted too heavily. Turns out we were three weeks early, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Two weeks before our departure, on June 11th I got a message from Dave Prentice, who has probably chased distance in Texas more than anyone.

“Hey, you know a guy named Sebastien Kayrouz? He’s 200km out and covering ground fast. I think he could get your record.”

I got on XCFind and sure enough, Sebastien was humming along quite nicely. I’d never heard of this guy. And he’d foot launched! There isn’t much terrain in Texas, but there are some low foot launches in their “hill country” NW of San Antonio, (it’s a stretch to even call them hills), but I’d heard they were usually blown out, especially on record days. I tapped everyone I knew as Sebastien passed the 300km mark. No one had heard of him. Last year at the US Nationals in Chelan he hadn’t broken the top 100 and was flying an Ozone Alpina, and yet this unknown pilot was flying solo at magnificent speed. I tapped some of my midwest contacts and learned that Sebastien was a relatively new pilot, had become a weather guru, and had been grooming 4 different launches in the hill country to be ready for the “perfect day.” And the perfect day was exactly what he was now tapping, and he was prepared. He’d hiked his gear up the little hill the night before just so he would be more fresh on the day. There was a subtropical low to the south of Louisiana (usually you want a high pressure there, but a combo of factors allowed the counter-clockwise low to mix with a strong dry line over the New Mexico border to create a monster convergence that flowed directly north). As he sailed past my record (387km) with a lot of day left, I began getting very excited about Texas!

In the end Sebastien flew 502km, an inspiring flight that crushed my record and I think got a lot of people around the world thinking more seriously about Texas. If this new pilot flying an M7 solo could fly 502 km in short of ten hours (good days in Texas you can land well after sunset and fly 11-12 hours), how far could a skilled team flying comp gliders working together as they do in Brazil go? Meaning no disrespect whatsoever to Sebastien as his flight was incredible at every level, but his flight confirmed what I hear from the world-record chasers, be it in sailplanes, hang gliders or paragliders: going huge is 85% the day, and 15% the pilot. To go 600km or more, you need a magnificent day, and you need to be in the air.

Our team would be two-time world record holder Donizete Lemos, World Cup shredder and X-Alps pilot Cody Mittanck, and myself. Donizete had planned an encampment with his Brazilian brethren- Rafael Saladini, Frank Brown and others this season but Covid had of course pinned his mates down and when he heard Cody and I were going to give it a shot I was elated when he gave me a call. What an opportunity! We were going to be taught by the Maestro himself!

We’d be joined by two other teams and we all agreed to share resources. My buddies Ben Abruzzo, Max Montgomery and Wyatt Lines were the New Mexico contingent and would be with us the first week, and late-to-join Cedar Wright, Marcos Rosenjaker, James “Kiwi” Oroc and thrillingly the legend himself, the “dark prince”, Larry Tudor would join us for the second half of the three week encampment. Larry was the first person to fly 200, then 300 miles in a hang glider (the 300 mile record stood for a LONG time) and knew a thing or two about breaking records, and having someone with such an endless lexicon of amazing stories would help all of us stay optimistic as the days wore on.

Looking back we properly blew it our first week. Day one Donizete and I made it away from the airport (Cody launched 5 times and never made it out- which is just how it works in Texas) and made pretty quick work of flying 140km to Cotella, a small town nestled at a freeway intersection north of our launch in Hebbronville. But because it wasn’t a “record” day we decided we should save our energy and land. It took both of us over an hour to get to the dirt, which turned out to be on the perimeter of a prison. Trying to land in 30+ km of wind at 3 pm in booming conditions in Texas is pretty terrifying. You can’t just spiral to the ground or something more fancy as you’ll get blown into the mesquite- or worse. As a thunderhead upwind of us marched our way and I began questioning our decision to attempt to land we finally hit enough sink to get down to Earth, where a half-dozen prison guards, the sheriff, the deputy and a tsunami of unescapable sweat met us.

But I’d just flown 140 easy kilometers with Donizete Lemos! We’d all discussed the rules of team flying the night before and day one we were totally in-step and doing it. We got this!

In that first week we purposefully landed on several days just because it wasn’t a record day that I’m convinced would have given up an easy 400 km. We figured we had to guard our energy and be ready for the big one. What we didn’t know was that Texas gives up a “big one” very, very rarely and we should have taken every kilometer possible. Dustin Martin said in the podcast I did with him that he thought a really good day comes around only every few years. We drove an awful long way to mostly suffer, we might as well have flown as much as we could.

 

Final glide on our first 300 km day. A marginal day at best in Texas- late start and very early end, but still pretty magic

By the start of the second week we’d all had a really fun 300+ km day just beyond the hill country and enough hours in the air that the team flying was starting to gel. Unfortunately the weather was not. And forecasting was like trying to decipher Germany’s Enigma machine in WWII. Larry Tudor’s advice for record-hunting was to try every day, which we did. Many, many days we’d fly just far enough away from the airport to make for a nice long walk. I think I set the record at 7 miles. It was 105 that day (113 with the heat index). Walking 7 miles with 65 pounds of comp kit in 105 degree heat is pretty equivalent to a really, really bad day in the X-Alps, and seemed quite a bit more life-threatening. I was convinced if our retrieve driver Ricardo hadn’t have gotten to me when he did I’d still be out there as vulture food.

Cedar and his team showed up just as the weather made a turn for the worse. His first flight he made a downwind turn at the end of the airport and underestimated the wind strength and landed in a cactus. His second flight he smoked it into a mesquite tree a few km downwind of the airport, which took 2 1/2 hours of sawing in insane heat to extract his wing. His third flight he flew 20 km, bombed out, landed on a road but hung his wing over another mesquite tree (mesquite is basically a massive cactus and has only one purpose that I can tell- causing misery). A week later he got his personal best, but in the process sun burned his face so badly I’m not sure it went down as a win.

 

Texas: 5. Cedar: 0

We were getting daily weather briefs from Davis Straub and as we entered our 3rd week they began coming with messages like: “this is the worst window of weather I’ve ever seen down there, but hang in there, it can change!” So we did. We hung in there. Cedar’s team and Ben’s team were over it and couldn’t get out of town fast enough but thankfully our tow techs were keen to keep supporting us (Greg Bryl and Greg Cusick) and Donizete seemed like he was just warming up and would happily have quit his job to stick around. He clearly knew that world-record hunting doesn’t come easy and chasing it all those years in Brazil had taught him incredible patience. Cody and I had not much else going on and the forecast was showing a glimmer of hope. We’d invested a lot into Texas, we might as well wait it out, as much it felt like a colossal waste of life.

We managed another great team flight over the 300 km mark, just beyond hill country on another very light wind day and then on what would be the last possible day we would have a chance, July 7th, Cody and I got a shot. Donizete had stretched his window as far as he could and reluctantly returned home, so for our final go it would just be the two of us. The winds were lighter than we’d need to go huge, but everything else looked close to perfect.

Cody and I pinged off tow at about the same time. We were in sync and working together immediately. In the beginning you have to move slow. Take every single bit of lift as high as you can. Fly absolute best glide. One wrong move is usually unrecoverable. It can be extremely tense. We skimped along for the first 30 km, with Cody almost always slightly higher showing me the better line. One trick I’d learned early when there isn’t cloud support is to bounce from one possible LZ to another (early on there are very few) and just point into the wind around the next LZ and wait for a thermal to come through. Typically in the flats this is a death sentence, but more often than not it worked for me.  Get as tall as you can, move to the next. This seemed to have better odds than constantly winging it off downwind because if you got a sinky line you were done. But on this finally day we had great cloud support but unfortunately all the climbs were cut up and piecing them together was a real struggle. As we got into the thick of the windmills Cody got a better piece of a climb than I did and it was game over for me. Texas won again.

I landed on a paved road, got a quick retrieve back to the campground, picked up the trailer, said goodbye to the Greg’s and Kiwi and began chasing Cody. The early strong winds had clearly backed off and while he was making great progress, he was way short of record pace. But the sky was brilliant. THIS was what Texas was supposed to look like!

At 300km out as Cody approached the hill country his perfect sky started to turn ugly. It was only 5 pm, he had 400km easy, but radar confirmed he was flying towards some booming cumulonimbus and we’d learned you need to give overdevelopment a massive amount of respect in Texas. I’d never seen skies get so big so quickly and none of us wanted to mess around with tornados. I couldn’t reach Cody on the radio, and he obviously had a better view of the sky than I did, but we both clearly had the same thought. For now, it was ok to press on. Several clouds were going super tall very fast, but it didn’t feel or look that menacing. Yet.

Twenty minutes later my wind alert app showed several weather stations to Cody’s west jump up precipitously. What had been a consistent 15km on the ground all day was suddenly 45, and several stations quite close to one another were all strong but all showed different wind directions. Would Cody descend into this? Was he above it? His flight path was bending strongly west from north, directly towards the Mexico border, which was into clearer sky, but it now looked like the growing storm would swallow him up. “RUN”, I thought, and stepped on the gas. If he got pushed too hard he’d get to see first hand how much of Trump’s wall had been built! I’d never seen a sky go that ballistic that fast.

As I raced out of Del Rio, which is right on the Rio Grande river and the Mexican border I started seeing the first lightning. The last output from Cody’s inReach showed he was flying at 87km/hr, coming nearly due south. He was 370 km out and I just hoped he could put it down safely as he was clearly in the gust front. Then I got a message on Telegram that he was on the ground safely. His location was only 10 minutes away. Ten minutes after I picked him up we were buffeted by a proper rain and wind storm (footage below). Texas wins.

You don’t come for the views. You don’t come for the cultural experience. You’re going to suffer quite a bit. You’re going to wait around a lot. You better like meat. And be able to deal with extreme heat. And you better have a smooth tongue when confronted with big dudes with big guns. Like David Prentice says “chasing records in Texas will drive you crazy.” He’s right. Is it fun? That isn’t the right word. But it’s…compelling, in a weird sort of way. And for some reason that I can’t articulate…I’m excited to go back.

Here are some clips from the trip:

Chasing Fools Gold from Cloudbase Mayhem on Vimeo.

 

And a few tips tips if you still want to give Texas a try (but don’t say I didn’t warn you!):

  • Watch the water tables (think drought) and get REALLY good at forecasting
  • You’ll need a yellow strobe light for any rigs on the runways, and you’ll need contacts for the various runways you might use. Don’t expect to just ruck up and make it work- we spent months putting it all together
  • You’ll need a personal strobe in case you get lucky and find yourself still flying after sunset
  • Your gear is critical. Don’t go to Texas with light weight hike and fly kit. You need a wicked comfortable, maximum-safety harness you can pile up a lot of hours in that can withstand all the nasty stuff that tears you to pieces, that gives you plenty of back support and ability to fly on bar all day. Something with two reserves and something that fits like a glove. The Kortel Design Kanibal II was my weapon and I wouldn’t go back without it. Want one? I’m a dealer! For your wing you need the best performance you can handle. Donizete and Cody flew the Enzo 3, I flew the Niviuk Evox (all are CCC wings). Texas requires super, super advanced flying skills. You need to be a competent, skilled XC pilot with a lot of experience.
  • There’s a very decent RV park about 10 minutes from the Hebbronville airport (FJC RV Park) that has grass, some shade and all the hook ups for a very good rate. There are also two decent hotels in Hebbronville, but for long stays- bring a camper if you can. You’ll need something with AC.
  • You need SUPER solid tow-techs and bomber winches. For most of us this was our first experience with Greg Bryl’s eWinch, which is just an incredible piece of kit (and something light enough you could take on an airplane). HIGHLY recommended. It’s windy as hell, make sure your ground handling skills are up to it.
  • Have plenty of time. Even with a lot of luck, Texas is a waiting game.

 



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